Today’s guest post comes from Danish lexicographer Lars Trap-Jensen. Since 2004, Lars has been Managing Editor of Den Danske Ordbog (The Danish Dictionary) – a corpus-based dictionary of modern Danish – and of the website ordnet.dk, which gives access not only to the The Danish Dictionary and the big historical Dictionary of the Danish Language, but also to a searchable corpus of Danish.
In last week’s post, Michael Rundell showed how English is increasingly used as a lingua franca outside the English-speaking world. In this post, I will look at the situation in Denmark to see if there is something – linguistically – rotten in this state.
Danes, along with other Scandinavians and the Dutch, have a reputation for being good at speaking English. At present, instruction begins in the 3rd grade (age 9) but the government has recently proposed to lower the age to 1st grade (age 7). It makes you wonder: could such a strategy, if applied successfully, lead to a situation where the local language, Danish, could be in danger of being ousted entirely by English?
The answer, right now, is no, Danish is not seriously threatened. It is by far the dominant language and it is used in almost all areas of daily life in Denmark. Although the proficiency level of English is relatively high, it comes nowhere near native-speaker competence. Investigations show that Danes tend to overrate their own English competence, both their ability to speak and instruct others and when it comes to their comprehension in classroom situations.
Nevertheless, the competition from English is a real challenge which has been the object of concern, especially over the past decade. In public debate, people are often worried about the extensive borrowing of words and expressions from English. But language experts deny that this is a real threat: the world has never witnessed an example of language death where a language commits suicide by borrowing words from another language. There are no good arguments for linguistic purism as a way of guarding the Danish language from English linguistic imperialism. The challenge lies elsewhere. A more genuine concern is that of “domain loss”: the situation in which English replaces Danish as the language of communication in a particular domain of public life.
Two official reports have been published on the language situation (2003 and 2008, both in Danish), with analyses, proposals and recommendations. Rather than trying to regulate the use of language through legislation, the government aims to strengthen the status of Danish in the competition with English.
The problem in higher education and research is obvious: a university that wants to compete globally and attract researchers and students from many different countries needs to find a linguistic solution where everyone can communicate efficiently. Today, English must be part of that solution. The answer has therefore been twofold: the English competence of university staff and students must improve and the Danish competence of foreign students and scholars is equally prioritized.
One concrete result of the strategy is the Centre for Internationalisation and Parallel Language Use, which was created at Copenhagen University in 2008. On their website you can read about the Centre and how they try to navigate between English as the international language and the need to develop Danish as a scientific language at the same time.
In the business world, companies with English as a corporate language find themselves in a similar situation, with a growing proportion of international employees and a globally-oriented market. Some companies respond in the same way and try to develop both the English skills of the Danish staff and the Danish skills of the international employees. However, as there are no formal obligations on the private market, no statistics are available that I know of, so to what extent it happens and with what degree of success is unclear.
A third important field is language technology, a major feature of globalization. English is the dominant language of the world of IT and the Internet, with other languages trying to keep up – often with some difficulty as the technologies required are just as resource-intensive for a small language as they are for a big one. It cannot be taken for granted that what is profitable for British and American companies with a market of many millions, if not billions, of people is also commercially interesting for, say, a Danish software company with only a few hundred thousand potential customers. In other words, language becomes cultural policy and, personally, I believe there is no way around more public funding if Danish is to match English in this area.
But perhaps the biggest losers in the current situation are German, French and other languages learnt as foreign languages. These have experienced a drastic lack of interest from students in both secondary and tertiary education.
For more blog posts in this series discussing the dominance of English, or English as a lingua franca, please see this page.Email this Post